I had never read Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms (1883) until last week. It’s a short little book and a strange one. Written when Woolf was one, it’s Woolf’s mother’s long, impressionistic essay on nursing, or rather, on tending to the sick when a nurse or doctor is away or otherwise occupied.
The voice is amazing: brisk, efficient, and full of care. It made Woolf’s mother—and her resemblance to the fictional Mrs. Ramsay—clearer to me than anything else I’ve read. She trips along, associatively, from one subject to the next, beginning in praise of nursing as a practice and ending in the humble pride a nurse can take in her role in nursing someone to a good death. Along the way, she explains how to make a bed when the patient is too ill to get up, describing that amazing process I have occasionally witness of rolling a patient gently onto his side, removing the dirty and adding the clean sheet, and then completing the operation by rolling him back.
She loves nursing because “ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” That impatience is wonderful, isn’t it? You can hear, in the book’s opening lines, this strong, practical preference for defined human relationships: none of this petty bickering, this nattering on and on about this and that. Give me a role and I will happily play it, nurse or patient, both are fine. Hardly sounds a bit like what Bloomsbury would become.
I leave you with two gems on crumbs, and hair:
“Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs… the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention” (5)
“Hairs are not so bad as crumbs, but they are very tormenting bed-fellows, and there is little excuse for any nurse who, after brushing the patient’s hair, allows any stray hairs to remain on the night dress or bed-clothes” (20)